Adapting The Classics: A Few Minutes with Producer Derek Frey talking about Disney’s ‘Dumbo’

Posted in Blu-Ray/DVD, Interviews, Movies by - July 07, 2019
Adapting The Classics: A Few Minutes with Producer Derek Frey talking about Disney’s ‘Dumbo’

Very often getting insight from behind the scenes of a film feels much more poignant then getting it from in front of the camera…

With Disney’s Dumbo available on Digital, Blu-Ray, 4K and DVD at all major retailers, it is easily the top choice for some summer entertainment in the comfort of your own home.

While we will admit to a little bit of skepticism about Director Tim Burton tackling this classic old tale I was surprised to realize that I simply wasn’t alone.

We got the unique pleasure to speak with Producer Derek Frey about his experiences on the film and how this Disney classic tale managed to also evolve itself into a classic Tim Burton tale as well.

Dave Voigt: You’ve worked with a Tim (Burton) a little bit and the marriage between Tim and Disney is already well documented but Dumbo actually feels like a little bit of stretch.  Can you talk a little on what it was about the Dumbo story in particular that got you both involved?

Derek Frey: Yeah you know when Disney first sent the script through I think that my reaction really was pretty similar to how a lot of people reacted initially but once I read it and got to revisit the original animated film I quickly realized that Dumbo is this story about an outsider, just this misfit with the big ears.  Tim’s entire career really has been about being a champion for these kinds of outsiders.  When you look at characters like Edward Scissorhands or Sweeney Todd in a weird way, these are characters who really don’t have words to them and they play like silent movie actors and the second I saw that they weren’t trying to make Dumbo talk or do anything of that nature I knew that this was something that he would really respond to and ultimately he did.

And that really does add so many layers to it as well and I’m glad that you’ve mentioned the animated version because if memory serves it’s less than 70 minutes long.  How much did you have to sort of balance the spirit of the original with the fact that there was going to be some different and new layers to the story for audiences to experience?

Ehren Kruger the screenwriter gave us this concept of reimagining Dumbo and he brought it to the studio that was initially hesitant but they encouraged him to give it a go, not to mention that Ehren was a huge fan of the original animated film as well.  In this he kind of wanted to answer the question of it all because the first one takes up to the point where Dumbo flies for the first time but he really felt it would be interesting to see what happens after the world finds out that there is this flying elephant.  He really felt he could get audiences through most of the action of the original film and still have plenty of time to go effectively beyond that.  Given the exploitation of the character it all plays out a little bit in a King Kong like fashion, with this wonderful and rare creature being taken away from its natural environment and ultimately exploited.

It’s also visually very layered and this really was one of those films (much like in many of Tim’s films) where the world building is just seamless and you can’t tell the practical from the digital.

I guess that means someone did their job correctly! (Laughs) And here’s the thing, Tim has worked across so many different spectrums of live-action and animation that it can often run together.  Obviously on this shoot, we knew going in that Dumbo would have to be a computer animated character.  However, Tim did want it anchored into a real world at the same time to make for a kind of “heightened reality”.  Ultimately the approach was that while Dumbo has to be CGI we want to make as much as we possibly can around this character be real and practical so that the actors had a real environment to work in and that you could drop into real sets.  On the disc you’ll see in some of the behind the scenes, most of the sets are completely closed in and you’d really only have to insert the sky or to extend some of the sets.  We had that mandate to anchor in reality as much as we could because he really felt that the story had that element of needing something you could really grasp on to.Dumbo -- Max-Medici

Obviously it made for a really big challenge, particularly for the animators who handled Dumbo but in concert with Tim everyone involved took extra care to make sure that Dumbo as a character was connected to a real world environment.  Be it through actors physically touching him or something slight like a kick up of dust when he flies by it was so important to make it all feel as grounded and as natural as we could.  I think it really shows and that’s why it’s hard to really see that line between practical and CG.

I have to say that I got such a kick out of seeing Michael Keaton and Danny Devito working with Tim again here on Dumbo.  It almost felt like he wanted to get the old gang back together in order to tell this story.

From the beginning of casting, Tim was always very meticulous in regards to casting because he just knew that the right people for the right roles would make it so much better.  I know for a fact that Tim was excited to work with Michael and Danny again but it was a big deal for people on set as well.  I know that one of my favourite days was when Alan Arkin, Danny Devito, Michael Keaton and Tim Burton were just all on set together.  Even though they hadn’t worked together in years you could see how the shorthand between them all was there and how they easily they slipped into the work is a testament to how much fun they were all having on this shoot as well and I really think it comes through on the screen as well.  The energy is palpable and they we’re all excited about going into fresh territory, particularly between Danny and Michael as Danny finally got to be the good guy and Michael really had fun in the bad guy role.

I’m always very curious, because you’ve also directed short films yourself and obviously have a creative bent to you but as a producer you also have to worry about the nuts and the bolts of it all.  How do you ultimately find a balance between the two; the creative vs. the realities?

Obviously I really do love the creative side of things and I would say that’s what I enjoy more but when you are on a project of this scale you have certain responsibilities as well.  On this one I’d say that I am really fortunate because Tim is a very responsible filmmaker with a team that has some of the best people in this industry.   Trusting them all to come through on their various tasks and Tim is never one to try and make anything more than it should be and then you lose focus, not only behind the camera but in front of it as well.  The term we’d always use is creating a kind of ‘Grand Intimacy’ and from that standpoint I actually think it helped us keep things in line from a budgetary standpoint.  You’re always trying to prepare for contingencies but his department heads are all so great that they made my job pretty easy and for the most part this was a pretty smooth shoot over all…Knock on wood of course (Laughs).

These days in this business we live in such an environment where people just want to remake or reboot already successful properties which can cause some audience trepidation.  Do you think that for stories like this it really does come down to making sure you match it with the right talent because I can’t see this working as well as it did without Tim at the helm?

Oh I completely agree.  Obviously there are so many of these films being made right now, but there’s also an audience for them as well but it does unquestionably help to take care that you’ve got the right match and we certainly had it here on this one.  Apparently Tim was the first person approached with the script and Tim didn’t hesitate.  Yeah you can have surprises when you’re making stuff and pairing material with talent and even my own initial hesistance is something I feel a lot of people felt…until they saw that first trailer and knew that in style and in tone this was unquestionably going to be a Tim Burton movie that audiences could get behind.  It’s a delicate balance to be sure.

Disney’s Dumbo is available on Digital, Blu-Ray, DVD & 4K from all major retailers now…


This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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